2003Director: Chan-wook Park
Cast: Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang, Seung-Shin Lee
ver play that game, “Which is Worse?” where you take one disgusting, horrifying thing and weigh it against another to decide which is a worse fate? Well, here’s one for you; which is worse, eating a live octopus or having your teeth pulled out one-by-one with a claw hammer? If either one of those scenarios just made you throw up in your mouth a little bit, you might want to stay far, far the hell away from Chan-wook Park’s brutal but sublime revenge thriller Oldboy. Because, believe me, those were just the things I could tell you about without indulging in major spoilerism.
Oldboy opens with our unlikely hero Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi) in the drunk tank for public intoxication. It’s a strange choice by way of introduction on director Chan-wook Park’s part, as Dae-su’s drunken antics don’t exactly endear him to us. In fact, Dae-su comes across as sort of an undignified slob. After being sprung from police custody by his long-suffering friend No-joo Hwan (Dae-han Ji), Dae-su wanders off during a pay phone call to his wife and daughter and simply disappears. When he awakens, he finds himself locked in a one-room prison with no windows and only a television for company. It is here that he will spend the next 15 years of his life.
"So, are you trying to tell me you're angry about something?"
For a decade and a half, Oh Dae-su is left to ponder his fate, unknowing of who would do this to him or why. He can only wonder as he watches the world march thoughtlessly on without him through a 16” jabbering looking glass, learning, among other things, that his wife was murdered and that he is the prime suspect. He fills journal upon journal with his rage, his longings, and his venomous vows of vengeance as he hones his body for the task, sparring with his imagined captor.
Once he is finally released, it becomes clear that he is not truly free, merely let loose into a wider prison to play an elaborate game of cat and mouse with his jailer who taunts him at every turn. He is given five days to find out not only who did this to him, but why. If he fails, the strange female sushi chef he meets and falls in love with at the first restaurant he eats at will be killed. In fact, his captor vows to murder every woman Dae-su falls in love with for the rest of his life if he cannot solve the puzzle of his imprisonment.
Chan-wook Park has done an extraordinary job giving as much polish to Oldboy as it has depth. Using split-screens, graphic overlays, video montage and a host of other editing tricks traditionally accused of creating distance between the viewer and the film, Chan-wook Park only draws us in deeper to Oldboy’s black and blue, neon-blinded world.
He's going to get his tape recorder all wet...
Though Oldboy isn’t an easy journey for the audience to make, it is, nonetheless, a satisfying one. It’s a potent cocktail of love, redemption, revenge and unparalleled cruelty laced with a deadly dose of some of the most stomach-churning violence this reviewer has ever seen. I will say this; I’m just not comfortable prefacing that last ingredient with the descriptions “senseless” or “gratuitous”. (After all, if someone had stolen 15 years of my life and the person I chose to share it with, you bet your ass I’d come out bat-shit crazy, swinging a claw-hammer and demanding some answers.) Where some films (Frank Miller’s Sin City comes immediately to mind) are so drenched in violence that it becomes merely another prop, Oldboy demands you feel every swing of the fist, every arc of the hammer, the crunch of every pried-out tooth. That’s a lot to ask of even the sturdiest, most jaded filmgoer, but in the end it’s worth it. The irony is that some of the payoffs are every bit the terrifying freak-show that the blood-spattered road getting there is, and the rest you’re just horribly uneasy about. Which is magic, by the way.
Oldboy seems to strike a balance that often eludes most filmmakers. It’s bleak, but witty. Unsparing in its violence yet hauntingly, elegantly beautiful. Tenderly malevolent, if you will. Every bit as engrossing as it is difficult to watch. Love it or hate it, you’re guaranteed to be riveted from start to finish. Hell, even I’m tired of hearing myself qualify my reviews with; “this film may not be for everyone…” but never was it more true than in this case. So if you’re feeling up to it, Oldboy is worth every minute of discomfort you will definitely suffer watching it. And that, I really don’t say often.
By: Jen Cameron
Published on: 2005-04-27